bNomadic

My travels, observations and experiences


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Garhwal Diary; Lesser exploits in the Himalayan Balcony

Mystical morning at Pauri; Hathi Ghori Peaks in sight

Incipient sunbeams creating mystical profile of gleaming Hathi Ghori Peaks. More at Flickr

The shining Central Himalayas in the morning

The shining Central Himalayas in the morning. More from the region at Flickr Photoset

The inchoate beams of the sun, next morning, unveiled some more features as well as divine aspects of the holy snow-clad screen. With the morning light producing silhouettes over the gleaming icy pinnacles, the awakening of senses reverberated with the mystical reflections off the snows in the vast Himalayan amphitheatre. Peaks as far as Dunagiri, Nanda Devi and Mrig Thuni towards the eastern horizon were clearly visible. Collecting my senses from the previous night’s slumber, I sat by the window pane and arranged my camera.

Not just aesthetically admired but the peaks of the Great Himalayan Range visible in Garhwal or Kumaon are revered as their guardian deities by the locals where the inspired ones usually begin their day by bowing in reverence for the Himalayan Gods. In Pauri, the centre stage is occupied by the Badri Vishal. The spirituality associated with the Himalayas finds a much deeper significance down below in the plains. The Ganges fed by the central Himalayas is in actual fact the lifeline of north India, grain bowl of the country.

The Hathi Gorhi Parbat massif

The Hathi Gorhi Parbat massif above Khirsu woods. Please visit Flickr for more images

L to R: Nanda Ghunti (6340m), Roung Tee (6370m) and Trishuli (7120m)

L to R: Nanda Ghunti (6340m), Roung Tee (6370m) and Trishuli (7120m). More at Flickr

The locals, particularly the priests, are generally well versed with the nomenclature of this part of the Himalayas and would happily point out the peaks and directions for you. The issue, however, is the relative topography as well as its latest terminology. With a hope of finding a latest relative map of the state or the region, I futilely checked at the bookshops of the main market located on either side of the main road or “The Mall Road” as referred to by the locals.

A panoramic view captured near the Deputy Commissioner's residence

A panoramic view captured near the Deputy Commissioner’s residence. More at Flickr

With amiability in their attitude, the inhabitants of the political capital of the Land of Gods are profoundly religious as is reflected by the thriving historical temples dotting the town. The popular ones are Kandoliya Devta, Laxmi Narayan, eighth-century Kyunkaleshwar Mahadev, Hanuman Mandir and a temple dedicated to Nag Devta. Nearby, other places of interest which could also double up as picnic spots include Ransi ground, Khirsu and Adwani forests, etc.

Horse-shaped Pauri town as viewed from a point near Khirsu

Horse-shaped Pauri town. More images from the region at Flickr

Kalij Pheasant (White-crested) spotted on the way to Khirsu

Kalij Pheasant (White-crested) spotted near Khirsu

The view towards the Trishul, from Pauri, is partially enriched by the wooded ridge of Khirsu. Enticed by its sylvan charm, I hoped to get a better view of the mountain from the ridge, basically an extended right ridge-arm of Pauri that can be reached in about 30 drive-minutes. The approach offers some splendid Himalayan vistas as well as photogenic access to raw flora and fauna. In fact, the government has long been planning to develop the small hamlet of Khirsu into a hill station but the actual progress reflects the sad state of affairs.

The narrow dreamy road to Khirsu

The narrow dreamy road to Khirsu. More of the region at Flickr

The terraced fields of fertile Nayar Valley

The terraced fields of fertile Nayar Valley. More images from the region at Flickr

Mountainscape as viewed from the GMVN property at Khirsu

Mountainscape as viewed from the GMVN property at Khirsu. More images at Flickr Photoset

The accommodation options at Khirsu are limited to a few guesthouses including a spacious GMVN property and a FRH that promotes camping. Even though, I was disappointed by overall management of the quiet hamlet including the GMVN property, the densely wooded ridge not only offers some refreshing trails to take a walk but allows distinct views of Chaukhamba. At 1800m, the tranquillity of wooded Khirsu gets broken by chirping of birds or occasional clamour of monkeys. The ancient temple of Ghandiyal Devta is also located nearby.

Chaukhamba massif captured from Khirsu; Satopanth and Kumling are also in the frame

Chaukhamba massif captured from Khirsu; Satopanth and Kumling are also in the frame

I budgeted a day to visit the popular temples of Pauri. Encircled by evergreen deodars, the Kandoliya temple, situated just above town, is dedicated to the local deity Bhumi Dev and allows some quiet moment with eternal Himalayas. The Himalayan Gods, who superficially live on mountains in trees and streams, are innumerable. Every valley or village has its own deity but the most venerated one throughout Uttarakhand remains to be the Nanda Devi.

Entrance to the Kandoliya Mahadev Temple at Pauri

Entrance to the Kandoliya Mahadev Temple at Pauri. More images from the region at Flickr

The Kandoliya Mahadev Shrine

It takes about 10 min to climb the stairs to reach the Kandoliya Mahadev Shrine 

Later in the day, following a thoughtless guide book, I trekked all the way up to the Kyunkaleshwar temple, from the CH, only to discover that it can now be reached through a narrow motorable road. Situated a little above the settlement of Pauri, the temple offers some fascinating Himalayan vistas. Said to be belonging to the eighth-century, the temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and still practises the age-old Guru-Shishya ritual in its Gurukul.

A Havan Kund inside the Kyunkaleshwar temple complex

A Havan Kund inside the Kyunkaleshwar temple complex (taken from smartphone device)

The Gurukul students or staff would gladly guide you through the historical memorials located within the temple compound. If you are lucky enough, your walk to the temple could be rewarded with a remarkable presence of wildlife as well as birdlife including wild pheasants. I luckily spotted a Himalayan Fox couple. One more temple dedicated to the Nag Devta could best be reached through a 45 min trek starting near the Superintendent of Police’s office.

Glittering Chaukhamba massif

The Golden Chaukhamba massif. More images of the region at Flickr Photoset

Average Altitude at Khirsu: 1800m
Best time to visit: October to April, avoid monsoons
Famous for: Sylvan charms and Chaukhamba views
Accommodation: Limited but mostly available


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Garhwal Diary; The Grand Balcony of Himalayas

The poetic highway NH 119

The poetic highway NH 119. More pics of the region at Flickr Photoset

Very often, our notion of the perfectness of a hill station collectively comprises the quality of the mountain-scape it offers to its visitors. In the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, the flavour of landscape switches to a newer angle with every rising ridge or changing hillside but the prime focus of the show remains the snow-capped curtain of central Himalayas stretching roughly over 150 miles from Swargarohini in the west to Panchachuli group of peaks in east. Nonetheless, such an innocuous desire to be able to savour the picture-perfect grand Himalayan spectacle gets verbalized by supportive weather conditions prevailing at that point in time. I would say that I was very fortunate indeed to have been blessed by a near-perfect view of the glowing snowy screen which Pauri Garhwal is famous for.

The fertile Nayar Valley

The fertile Nayar Valley. More from the region at Flickr Photoset

Descending the Lansdowne ridge, the nicely tarred NH 119 takes about 150 comfortable-minutes to reach Pauri, the administrative headquarters of Pauri Garhwal district of the state. Looping an exposed hillside, the narrow highway passes through Gumkhal and Satpuli just as the white curtain disappears from the scenery giving way to the Nayar Gorge. Spread on both sides of the highway, the small trade centres of Gumkhal and Satpuli comprises, typical of a small Garhwal town, matchbox-sized shops many of which still retain their wooden framework. Ahead of the confluence point of Western Nayar with Eastern Nayar at Satpuli, the road gradually ascends and the narrow gorge opens into the richly fertile Nayar valley comprising one of the most scenically terrace-shaped agriculture fields. The delight of passing through the multi-shaded green landscape immediately got fructified at a bend near Buwakhal when the shining snowy screen made an instant appearance. Passing through dense woods, the remaining six kilometres till Pauri presented a short intro to the Great Himalayas where one by one each major peak announced its presence.

The vantage offered by Pauri ranges from the far-flung hills of Mussoorie to Chamoli regions.

The vantage offered by Pauri ranges from the far-flung hills of Mussoorie to Chamoli regions.

Previously known as the British Garhwal, Pauri has always been an important trading centre and was a staging post during the silk-route days. Spread on the terraced northern slopes of Kandoliya Range, at an average altitude of 1750 m, Pauri has gradually become the political nerve centre of Garhwal region. Possessing a rare scenic beauty and scintillating surroundings, the settlement of Pauri comprises a fusion of recently constructed houses as well as olden ones bearing signs of traditional architecture and a market that fulfils most needs of the region. Unlike most other hill stations developed by the British, Pauri has retained very little from the colonial past. In its place, Pauri is a confused manifestation of an expanded village gradually germinating into a Himalayan town. The character of the landscape shifts from being milder to a more rugged one as one enters the side valleys to reach snows.

L to R: Kirti Stambh (6510m), Bharat Kuntha (6578m), Kedarnath (6940m)

L to R: Kirti Stambh (6510m) and Kedarnath (6940m) in the centre. More at Flickr

The 6351 m Sumeru Parbat continues to be one of the most difficult and less attempted peaks of the region

The 6351 m Sumeru Parbat continues to be one of the most difficult and less attempted peaks of the region. More peaks and nomenclature of the region at Flickr Photoset

The visitor profile to Pauri includes pilgrims who are either on their way to the famed Char Dham Yatra or visitors to the ancient temples of Pauri. Though, in the recent times, Pauri has been gaining popularity with adventurers, trekkers and para-sailors. Owing to the avenues generated by an influx of tourists, over the past few years, a few guesthouses, restaurants, eateries and a couple of ‘resorts’ have come up. I always say the state-run GMVN property could have been managed better. The best aspect of staying in Pauri is that almost every accommodation offers a splendid view of snow-capped Himalayas. However, the best views can be had from the Deputy Commissioner’s residence.

Literally meaning Tail of a monkey, the shining Bandarpunch massif

Literally meaning Tail of a Monkey, the shining Bandarpunch massif. More at Flickr

Fortunately, I was welcomed at the conveniently located Circuit House (CH). I particularly liked the accommodation for the views it commanded and the sumptuous home-cooked meals dished out by the cook. In winters, during the daytime, the open lawns of the CH complex would become favourite haunt of the neighbours who would spend their afternoons taking the sun. As the locals were gearing up to receive the first spell of snowfall of the season, the exceptional sunny afternoons were possibly their best bet to socialise.

Morning view from the lawns of the CH.

Morning view from the lawns of the CH. Please visit Flickr Photoset for more images

Having offered a tea, I could not think of a better way to soak in the views of the Garhwal Himalayas. Barring a few inquisitive eyes, my presence was generally discounted by all. The region consists of a succession of gentle mountain ridges divided from each other by deep glens and climaxing at the snowy Himalayan canvas. Excluding the helm of Srinagar, the pasture of Panai on the banks of Alaknanda and the submontane tract, there was no level land visible from Pauri. The vantage offered by Pauri included the far-flung hills of Mussoorie, Chamba, Tehri, Rudraprayag, Srinagar, Karnaprayag and Chamoli regions. The panoramic view of enamouring snowy range included the peaks of Swargarohini, Bander Pooch, Gangotri Group, Kedarnth, Sumeru, Chaukhamba, Neelkanth, Hathiparvat, Nandadevi and Trisul etc. My eyes remained fixed on the spectacularly arresting mighty Chaukhamba massif. What more a Himalayan devotee like me would desire for than a noise-free civilised space and time to savour the holy glittering rocks?

Ranging from 6854 m to 7138 m, the mighty Chaukhamba Massif

Ranging from 6854 m to 7138 m, the mighty Chaukhamba Massif. More at Flickr

The 6596 m Neelkantha (Badrinath) towards right

The 6596 m Neelkantha (Badrinath) towards right. More peaks at Flickr Photoset

The golden 6904 m Mt Thalay Sagar

The golden 6904 m Mt Thalay Sagar. More images from the region at Flickr Photoset

The glittering Kharcha Kund 6613 m

The glittering Kharcha Kund 6613 m. More peaks from the region at Flickr Photoset

The mystic sunlight in the morning and evening exhibits a glittering rebellion of colours on the sharp snow-clad rocks. The blue hues seamlessly merging into a shade better, ridge after ridge, produce a hypnotic effect during the two extremes of the day. The magnitude of habitation could feasibly be assessed in the night when the countless sparkling lights jeweling hillsides are viewed under a starry nightscape. I would regrettably say that no ridge or no corner as visible is spared from construction or the destruction.

The glittering Gangotri Group as observed from Pauri.

The glittering Gangotri Group as observed from Pauri. More from the region at Flickr

Given the nature of the mountainscape, there can be little doubt that Pauri should be visited in a haze-free weather. The climate of the region is generally pleasant in summer, very cold in winter and heavy rainfall in monsoon. Apart from providing a considerate environment to a poet or an author or a photographer or a painter, Pauri offers some pleasing walks through dense woods full of flora and fauna. Such frivolous details would be covered in the next post.

Do not forget to load your photography gear with a wide-angle lens. In my case, sadly, my chief moped at the last moment.

Average Altitude: 1700m
Best time to visit: November to April, avoid monsoons
Travel Lure: Himalayan views
Accommodation: Mostly available


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Garhwal Diary; an affair with Bhullas

The year-end holiday window presented me with a much-needed opportunity to rekindle my affair with Himalayas. Fortunately, this time, my visit to an oft-overlooked region uphill of Bhabhar belt of Pauri Garhwal was pedantically hosted by a family friend who made the stay superbly comfortable.

The mystic Himalayan wealth; view towards the Trisul and Nanda Devi. More images at Flickr

The mystic Himalayan wealth of Garhwal; view towards the Trisul and Nanda Devi. More at Flickr

As the road climbed from Kotdwar by the River Khoh crossing Sidhbali and Durga Devi temples, the Sal cover, stretched towards the North West fringes of the Corbett National Park, gradually gave way to pine forests and rocky mountain region. The current stretch of the NH 119 loops around small hills by the Khoh till Duggada, a village which shot into prominence during the construction of the cart road to connect Kotdwara with Lansdowne in 1919. Literally meaning a confluence, Duggada is a meeting point of Khoh stream, which rises near Dwarikhal in the Langur Range, and stream Siligadh. During rains, the Khoh is known to swell into a gushing stream before debouching the plains at Kotdwara, the administrative headquarters of the Bhabhar administration.

NH 119; I'd say one of the finest and loveliest hill-roads

NH 119; I’d say one of the finest and loveliest hill-roads. More pics at Flickr Photoset

Right from my entry to Lansdowne, I was disciplinarily guided, wherever I sought directions to my destination within the administrative limits. A serene and modern blend of regimental history and comparatively an unspoiled hillside, Lansdowne has everything a curious traveller would look for. Or as the resident men in Olive Greens proudly define the scenic hill-station, “a geographic version of a gun with nature in the barrel”!

I'd say Army is the reason behind the impeccable upkeep of the ridge

“A geographic version of a gun with nature in the barrel”. More of the region at Flickr Photoset

What more could I have asked for to awaken my spirits after a long day’s drive through plains when early morning, after the incipient rays of sun had played its magical part, I was welcomed by a superb Himalayan spectacle straight out of imagination. The snowy curtain of the central Great Himalayan Range stretches almost for 100 miles from Swargarohini to Nanda Kot.

The inspiring peace and tranquillity offered by Lansdowne’s misty charms along with the breathtakingly serene Himalayan views is nature at its best in today’s environmentally-conflicting times. Interspersed with antique self-designed red-roofed bungalows, rhododendron, oaks and deodars, the serenity only gets broken by chirrups of sparrows and thrushes or rallying calls of Bhullas in their training ground. Literally meaning a younger brother, soldiers of Garhwal Regiment are referred to as Bhullas amongst themselves. 

Indicator to over 15 major peaks of the Great Himalayan Range, the bronze dial was presented to the Garhwal Regiment by Col Roberts

Indicator to over 15 major peaks of the Great Himalayan Range, the bronze Dial was presented to the Garhwal Regiment by Col Roberts. More pics of the region at Flickr Photoset

The house once owned by Col Robert is also said to be associated with friendly headless horserider ghost of himself

The house once owned by Col Roberts is also said to be associated with friendly headless horserider ghost of himself. No ceremony is said to be complete unless a toast is raised to him

The impeccably managed antique building, now the Officer's Mess of Garhwal Rifles Regimental Centre, houses historical treasure in the form of military records, books, game trophies, etc. The building full of extravagantly lifestyle of the British was constructed in 1892.

The impeccably managed antique building, now the Officer’s Mess of Garhwal Rifles Regimental Centre, houses historical treasure in the form of military records, books, game trophies, etc. The building, witness to the extravagantly lifestyle of the British, was constructed in 1892.

The Gazebo offers most perfect view possible on the ridge of Lansdowne

The Gazebo offers most perfect view possible on the ridge of Lansdowne. More pics at Flickr

The antique stone cellar was in use to store and preserve game by the British

The antique stone cellar, down below, was used to store and preserve game by the British

View of the Great Himalayan Range from the Dial

View of the Great Himalayan Range from the Dial. More from the region at Flickr

A panoramic view of the Garhwal Himalayas

A panoramic view of the Garhwal Himalayas. Please visit Flickr Photoset for more pics

Originally known as Kaludanda, the name Lansdowne, for a hill station, may appear to be out of place in this part of the world. After the ridge was occupied by the freshly-raised Garhwal Regiment of Infantry, it was renamed as Lansdowne in 1890 to venerate Henry Charles Keith Petty Fitzmaurice, the fifth Marquis of Lansdowne who happened to be the British Viceroy of India during that period. Most of the colonial leftovers are professionally preserved and egoistically put to display by the Garhwali Rifles inside the cantonment.

Lansdowne is strategically located on a ridge, at an average altitude of 1700 m, which overlooks the forest wealth of Bhabhar, Garhwal and Kumaon regions. Still retaining its original charm, courtesy the Indian Army, the popular attractions within Lansdowne including Santoshi Mata temple, Tiffin Top, Bhulla Taal, St Mary’s as well as St John’s Churches, Regimental Museum, Main Market, etc. all can be covered on foot. Visiting the inbounds of cantonment may not be possible without permission from the concerned authorities. I would say fortunately I was very lucky. 

From being a temple, school, stable and a godown, the restored St John's Church (1936) has seen it all

From being a temple, school, stable and a godown, the restored St John’s Church (1936) has seen it all

A temple Bell tied at the entrance door of the St John's Church

A temple Bell tied at the entrance door of the St John’s Church. More from the region at Flickr

Originally built in 1896, the St Mary's Church was restored recently

Originally built in 1896, the St Mary’s Church was restored recently. More at Flickr

Also called Tip n Top, the Tiffin Top point makes for a good Himalayan-observation point

Also called Tip n Top, the Tiffin Top point makes for a good Himalayan-observation point

The artificially built Bhulla Taal is a popular picnic spot

The artificially built Bhulla Taal is a popular picnic spot. More from the region at Flickr

Inside the Garhwal Regimental Museum.

The Garhwal Rifles Regimental Museum houses some of the oldest weaponry used and records maintained by the British in the region. For more pics, please visit Flickr Photoset

Mostly owing to its positioning on the trade route, back in the days of the Raj, Lansdowne was one of the largest hill cantonments. The shaded winding roads are still lined with colonial bungalows unwaveringly holding their olden charm with ornate gates and windowsills hidden behind a riot of shrubbery. The cantonment stretches along the ridge for over eight kilometres and is roughly divided into halves by a gulch at the pinnacle of the Pauri-Lansdowne road near the church. The Garhwal Rifles occupy a majority of the area on the ridge and the top by officers’ bungalows. The Sadar Bazaar lies towards the south of the ridge and the Bhulla Taal towards the South West.

The Gandhi Park chowk also marks the Main Market

The Gandhi Park Chowk also marks the Main Market. More from the region at Flickr Photoset

It took me about 70 minutes to reach Lansdowne from Kotdwar market. A full-day walk would be enough to touch the various points of attraction. However, a longish stay is recommended to be friends with the fauna and discover the tranquility of Kaludanda. Before you trip in, be sure about your accommodation at Lansdowne as there are limited options. For Civilians. Yes! 

Welcoming the sun at Lansdowne; the Nayar Valley is enveloped by clouds

Welcoming the sun at Lansdowne; the Nayar Valley is enveloped by clouds. More pics at Flickr

Average Altitude: 1700m
Best time to visit: Round the year
Travel Lure: Sylvan charms and Himalayan views
Accommodation: Very limited


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Kullu Diary; the flowing Ridge of Kothi

Northern arm of Bara Banghal Range captured from Kothi Ridge

Northern arm of Bara Banghal Range captured from Kothi Ridge. Please visit Flickr for more images

Situated a little more than ten kilometer from the fine spreading of enormous deodars jacketing the touristy Manali, Kothi makes for quite a visible delight. At 2552 m, almost placed at the foot of the mighty Rohtang La, since time immemorial, Kothi has been an ideal camping ground or base for several popular treks including the traditional crossing over of the pass to reach Lahaul.

Having crisscrossed the Kothi ridge, several times before, it was in the summers of 2013 when opportunity knocked the humdrum of daily life and presented with a window to travel in the Godly Kullu Valley. I immediately grabbed the offer made by my dearest advocate brother and directed myself towards the head of the fertile Beas Valley.

I would not vacillate in calling this place as one among the few remaining idyllic hideouts offered by the Beas region. Retaining its own poetic charm, the splendidly attractive ridge offers plentiful of vistas ranging from green Deodar cover to raging stream and finely shaped snow-capped lower Himalayas to alpine pastures.

View towards the Beas Valley

View towards the Beas Valley. For more pics, please visit Flickr Photoset

Possibly deriving its name from the bungalow, now occupied by the PWD of the state government, the Kothi-ridge has always been among the favourite halting spots for trans-Himalayan bound travellers. Although basic facilities like small shops, a few Guest Houses, restaurants, etc. have sprung up on the ridge, still commanding its grand old charm, the PWD Rest House continues to be the landmark building of the ridge. It was not difficult for me to recognise the PWD RH from the Check Post, for Rohtang cross over, stationed just before Kothi as one crosses the narrow deep Beas Gorge.

View towards the Rohtang Range. For more pics, please visit Flickr Photoset

View towards the Rohtang Range. For more pics, please visit Flickr Photoset

As the morning sprang up to life the next day, I could not but minutely observe the splendid canvas of nature. Opposite the bungalow are the fine-girt precipices which line the southern foot of the Rohtang range, while south of them stretches an inimitable vista of the valleys, the wide forestland and the snow-sprinkled ranges that makeup northern sentinels of Kullu. The RH itself is positioned on a grassy slope at the lower edge of the immense forests of pine and chestnut, which were once the favourite haunt of both red and black bear as per the earlier records maintained by travellers. However, on a highly unfortunate note, currently there isn’t much left in the immediate surroundings for a wildlife lover except for the flying scavengers who occasionally glide through thermals coming off the rocky edge.

The Kothi Bungalow (RH)

The Kothi Bungalow (RH). More images from the region at Flickr Photoset

View from the corridor of the RH

View from the corridor of the RH. The mobile tower is positioned in Palchan; the Gorge and the small settlement of Kothi towards the lower-right of the frame

View towards Rahla. The bungalow, part of this frame, belongs to a bigwig from Haryana

View towards Rahla. The bungalow, part of this frame, belongs to a bigwig from Haryana.

A Himalayan Bulbul

A Himalayan Bulbul. More at Flickr

Just as one slopes down, one of the mighty natural wonders of Kullu lay bare before your eyes. The head of the valley is marked by a mighty crack, as if some natural upheaval had happened in the times gone by. The gorge, more than 20 ft wide, is walled by sheer cliffs. More than 100 ft below at the floor of the gorge, the Beas races and surges with an unceasing roar displaying its free fall momentum from the crest of Rohtang. Down below it is joined by the voluminous Solang Torrent before it gets codified into the Beas River.

Right from the earliest recorded travellers including Col Bruce or Moorcraft and Trebuck in their expedition of 1820, everyone made a special reference to Kothi, its splendidness and the challenge which this Gorge posed to be crossed. As for me, it will continue to attract and inspire me to remain forever attached with Himalayas.

The snow-capped Rohtang Range captured in the morning

The snow-capped Rohtang Range captured in the morning. More from the region at Flickr

View towards the Halindi and Sarai Nala Valleys

View towards the Halindi and Sarai Nala Valleys. More from the region at Flickr Photoset

Average Altitude: 2500m
Best time to visit: Avoid monsoons and winters
Travel Lure: Himalayan views and refreshing walks
Accommodation: Very limited


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Postscript to my trans-Himalayan Stroll

The following is a page entry from On Road through the trans-Himalayan Region. To read complete travel memoirs and trip report, please visit here.

Chapter 22 of 22

Previous Chapter

Nun-Kun in Suru Region

Nun-Kun in Suru Region. More from the stroll at Flickr Photostream

The following morning, I chose to ignore the otherwise routine morning activities, which includes yoga or a morning-walk. Without breakfasting, we checked out of the hotel and having bought prasad, from the market, for family, we set out towards the Jammu city (308 m). Without any stoppage on the way, we lunched at the famed Haveli on NH1 past Jalandhar. The cruising affair of The Faithful continued non-stop till Karnal where I spent 10 min in unloading cousin as well as his belongings. The distance between Karnal and Jind was covered via Panipat. This way I reached my home at around 2230 hrs after picking my better-half and the kid from her parental house in Jind itself.

Even more enthusiastic about the Indian trans-Himalayan region and having gained some first-hand knowledge, I spent the remainder of the night in recounting the experience as well as key highlights of our sojourn on the rugged edge of the world. While describing the happenings of the trip, I could almost pinpoint the key regions where I could not manage to travel this time on the dream journey. Certainly, there is all the more to look forward to on my next visit in the coming seasons.

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Even though, it is all the more preposterous vainly trying to give inkling to what you consider to be your quest. Still, chronicling travels is a vital aspect of a wanderer’s objective. The current journal is my first ever attempt in the aforesaid direction. In the due course of writing, I got introduced to as well as discovered the various measures a writer needs to take while travelling. All such measures have been integrated with the thinking as well as planning process for all prospective journeys. In future, I do wish to get a chance to travel and visit a similar area for a longer duration to be able to grasp as well as analyse the realities and present them in a more useful manner.

The description, as mentioned in this journal, is a creation of knowledge on the area accumulated, over a period of time, by gaining first-hand experience as well as reading numerous books and write-ups which I so far came across. The finest of the accounts, as mentioned in this journal, would be those which are able to reproduce the soul as well as create a precise imagery of place. The description may seem below mark and perhaps thoughtless but anyone who has been to the trans-Himalayas would endorse the specifics and may like to supplement it with words which are even more beautiful. The memories of red, yellow-billed alpine choughs calling against the backdrop of rocky cliffs and wind-blasted afternoons are forever etched in my mind.

“He who travels far will often see things

Far removed from what he believed was Truth.

When he talks about it in the fields at home,

He is often accused of lying,

For the obdurate people will not believe

What they do not see and distinctly feel.

Inexperience, I believe,

Will give little credence to my song.”

 –Anonymous

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Previous Chapter


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Maa Vaishno Devi

The following is a page entry from On Road through the trans-Himalayan Region. To read complete travel memoirs and trip report, please visit here.

Chapter 21 of 22

Previous Post                          Next Post

Morning view at Patnitop

Morning view at Patnitop. More at Flickr

The following morning, after meal, we leisurely left the hotel premises to start the activities of the day. The gradual descent from the highest point on Srinagar-Jammu road – Patnitop – in late morning, gathered momentum after passing through Kud, located just eight km ahead. The settlement of Kud is famous for Indian sweet Patissa, sold fresh and hot by the red-coloured sweet shops located on both sides of the NH1A. A tea here seemed to be a perfect approach to break the laziness armour-plated by the nip in the morning air. The JKTDC as well as a few private operators maintained their properties overseeing the captivating Kud valley. The township of Udhampur was still 40 km ahead.

Descending the Patni Top towards Tawi basin

Descending the Patni Top towards Tawi basin. More from the region at Flickr Photoset

Nearing Kud

Nearing Kud, famous for Patissa. More from the region at Flickr Photoset

Descending the green Shivalik hills, we soon reached the military town Udhampur (808 m). The town wore a deserted look due to Bharat Bandh, called by the NDA (National Democratic Alliance), main opposition alliance at the centre, to protest against the fuel price hike, FDI in retail as well as rationing of subsidised LPG cylinders. Greened by Eucalyptuses, the district consists of many travel destinations including the sixth-century group of temples at Khiramchi, Shivkhori, Pancheri, etc. I was particularly interested in visiting the ancient temples but was advised by the paramilitary staff, posted near the Supply Chowk, not to venture into the off-NH1A area because of the protests. Frustrated, we asked for the directions to Katra, base for Mata Vaishno Devi pilgrimage, which could be reached taking a 17 km road branching off the main highway from Domail ahead of Tikkri. Initially, we had no plans of visiting the major Hindu shrine but passing through an area, so near to the keenly sought-after destination, we just did not want to miss the opportunity.

Ahead of Udhampur; near the diversion for Katra

Ahead of Udhampur; near the diversion for Katra. More images from the region at Flickr Photoset

The hill – Tirukuta Mountain – on which the main temple is sited, becomes visible from the highway itself near Domail. Revering the holy site, the road meandered in a valley-like topography and slightly gained height to reach Katra (868 m), a base-village located at the foothill of the Tirukuta Mountain. With ever increasing number of pilgrims, Katra today is a thriving tourist village offering accommodation options as well as restaurants that suit all pockets. Having been to the shrine more than half-a-dozen times, by now I was familiar with the area. Confirming an accommodation, we took an afternoon nap in the hotel room allowing just sufficient time to climb in the evening and be back, after darshan at the shrine, before the next daylight.

I usually start the yatra in the early evening so as to reach the Bhawan, the Sanctum Sanctorum which is the Holy Cave, before the evening Aarti time – a couple of hours prescribed Pooja dedicated to Vaishno Maa – which starts after the sun sets. Likewise, the morning Aarti finishes before the sun rises. Loading my backpack with camera kit, GPS device as well as basic necessities for the climb, I headed out towards the market area. With the passage of time coupled with the wider acceptance of the shrine, Katra has expanded itself from a village to a tourist town peppered with restaurants, Prasad shops selling souvenirs as well as dry-fruits, garment shops, hotels, guesthouses and dharamsalas, etc. Pilgrim registration has been made mandatory at Katra before the start of the yatra. The registration slip (also entitles with accidental insurance up to Rs 1L), so obtained, is checked thrice by paramilitary jawans on the way to the Bhawan. With over 10 million pilgrims visiting annually, the affairs of the shrine are looked-after by the government controlled Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board headquartered at Katra. Earlier, the control of the shrine vested with the Maharaja of Kashmir. The hefty offerings which the shrine receives are claimed to be utilised towards the welfare of the pilgrims as well as to improve the infrastructure.

Starting from a gateway-cum-checkpost located two km ahead of the registration counter at Katra, the yatra, an easy 12 km climb on graded pathways that takes up to four-five hours

Starting from a gateway-cum-checkpost located two km ahead of the registration counter at Katra, the yatra, an easy 12 km climb on graded pathways that takes up to four-five hours. More from the region at Flickr Photoset

The initial stretch to the imposing gate, marking the beginning of the foot march to the Bhawan, passed through fume-choked crowded streets of Katra. People generally prefer taking an auto from Katra to reach the gateway but I resisted doing so. The gateway is marked by a security check post that screen luggage as well as frisk every yatri. It didn’t require much explaining from my side to convince the jawan that the camera I carried was just a photo-camera (and not a video camera) and the GPS device was simply meant to record altitudes of major landmarks. The shrine has of late been subjected to substantial paramilitary presence owing to numerous threats issued by terrorist outfits such as Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Starting from a gateway-cum-checkpost located two km ahead of the registration counter at Katra, the yatra, an easy 12 km climb on graded pathways that takes up to four-five hours, passes through numerous ancient temples as well as landmarks on way to the Bhawan. Situated at a distance of one km from the gateway, the first major landmark, a gushing stream named Banganga (780 m) is popular for holy bath as well as langar run by T-Series Super Cassette Industries. This stretch of the climb is dotted with numerous souvenir shops as well as dhabas selling basic meals. Apart from incessant chanting of Jai Mata Di, the stretch is marked by Prasad shops blaringly playing the popular Bollywood numbers karaoked to “holy songs”. Pithoos, palkiwalas and ponywalas registered with the authorities could be hired in this stretch (from Katra to Banganga). Alternatively, one may like to hire the battery-operated auto-rickshaws (pre-booking required) or avail helicopter services (requires advance booking) to reach the Bhawan.

Crossing over to the other side of the valley, formed by the Banganga, the pathway steeply climbs in switchbacks to reach the next popular halt named Charanpaduka (1025 m) located about 1.5 km ahead. Legend has it that Mata Vaishno Devi took some rest here while climbing the Trikuta Hills. Aptly named Charanpaduka, the temple dedicated to the fable is said to have the foot prints of Goddess. The entire pathway, especially the first six km from the gateway, is dotted with refreshment, fruit shops, dhabas as well as the Shrine Board’s eateries. Increasingly popular nowadays, the first Café Coffee Day, selling limited items, is located 700 m ahead at an altitude of 1160 m.

The climb starts from the entrance Gate visible down below

The climb starts from the entrance Gate visible down below (bottom left). More at Flickr Photoset

View towards Katra town

View towards Katra town; The Banganga Valley towards left. More at Flickr Photoset

The next widely accepted stopover, Ardhkuwari is located, midway on the yatra route, about 3.5 km ahead of Charanpaduka. Consisting of Ardhkuwari Temple comprising Garbhjoon, an ancient cave, believed to be a hiding place for Shri Mata Vaishno Devi from a tantric named Bairon Nath. It is from below this landmark, a recently constructed pathway, free of ponies, branched off the original route to the Bhawan. The original route climbs for four km to reach the highest point called Sanjichat after which it descends, for slightly more than a couple of kilometre, to reach the Bhawan.

Nevertheless, I took the newer route which was appreciatively out of bound for ponywalas and offered a slightly shorter access to the main temple. Whereas, the first-half of the pathway was not only crowded but full of ponies (and their shit), the remaining-half was calmer and offered splendid views of the Katra as well as distant looking Tawi River dividing the Jammu city into two. A fewer refreshment shops and Shrine Board’s eateries were located in this part of the yatra route. The major ones were at Himkoti (1500 m), located three km from Ardhkuwari, and Saket (1622 m), located 1.5 km before the Bhawan. I stopped to grab a quick Kadhi-chawal meal at the Shrine Board’s eatery at Himkoti. Open round the clock, the Board’s eateries sell hygienically cooked meal-combos, at reasonable prices, including rajma-chawal, idli-sambar, wada-sambar, dosa, kadhi-chawal, poori-chhole, etc. The Board has done well to build tin sheds, as well as wash rooms, after almost every 100 m all along the way. Apart from serving as a resting point, the sheds offers protection from rains as well as falling stones.

Captured en-route to the Bhawan

Tawi basin; captured en-route to the Bhawan

Plodding up the cave-shrine, the devotees often break into a dance amidst collective chants of Jai Mata Di, Zor se bolo, Jai Mata Di… The state of trance reaches its peak as one nears the cave for ultimate darshan of the three holy pindies of Mata. It was this meditative trance that makes the fatigue go vanish as one climbs the slopes of Trikuta Hills to reach the Bhawan. Being alone, undisturbed and ignorant of the happenings of the world down there, I revelled in the ultimate unison with oneself. Within no time I reached the premises of the Bhawan and having obtained a group number to enter the holy-cave, after showing my registration slip, I joined the queue to buy bhaints (offerings comprising a red chunni, dry coconut, Prasad, etc.) for Mata from a shop maintained by the Shrine Board.

Like in any other pilgrimage, one has to beware of thieves or pickpockets here as well. The incidents of luggage-lifting are not uncommon here. As carrying luggage inside the Bhawan complex is not permitted, the safest way to secure one’s belongings is to use the cloakroom services provided, free-of-cost, by the Shrine Board. However, as the insignificant-looking padlock which they provide practically carries little meaning, one is advised to carry own lock. I shilly-shallied while locking my backpack containing camera, other gadgets, wallet, wrist-watch, etc. along with shoes and belt. Afterwards, I joined the devotees of our group who sat cross-legged in a queue while listening to the Aarti being performed inside the cave as well as chanting Jai Mata Di. The tempo of collective chants increased as we neared the holy-cave which was recently renovated and modified to accommodate more devotees.

As we neared the holy-cave, I was not surprised to notice separate walkways for VIPs devotees whose entry inside the complex was prioritised based on the level of contacts each one of them had. This corporatisation of darshans was not something which was unique to this shrine. The desire as well as greed of our minds that bring us near God often remains ignorant of the fundamentals which led to the creation of God or religion in the first place. Today, the ease or rapidity of darshan at a shrine gets described either by contacts or money to buy “pooja-packages”.

A look towards the main Shrine of Maa Vaishno Devi

Midnight view towards the main Shrine of Maa Vaishno Devi. More from the region at Flickr Photoset

The revelation of the Mother Goddess, inside the cave, is in natural form called pindies, three tiny rock-heads stemming from a single rock. After getting my bhaints exchanged from a counter located after the cave, I quickly headed towards the cloakroom where, mercifully, everything was in order. Collecting my stuff, I parked myself on a cold iron-bench located nearby the forked junction where the two pathways, from Katra, meet. It was nearing midnight but devotees of all caste, creed and sections of the society were still pouring in intoning Jai Mata Di. Considered by many to be a part of the yatra, the temple of Bhairon Nath, to be visited after Mata’s darshan, is located at a distance of 2.5 km from the Bhawan. The pathway is further linked to the Sanjichat. The last time when I visited the Bhairon Nath temple, I spotted many langoors on the way. This time I directed myself towards Katra through the preferred pathway on which ponywalas were prohibited to enter. The decent, putting additional weight on knees is harder than the ascent. By midnight I reached the eatery at Himkoti and munched on kadhi-chawal again. The never-ending groups of pilgrims, some enthusiastically cheering on others while a few dragged themselves panting for breathe, kept the trance gather momentum.

The popularity of Vaishno Devi has grown gazillion times, in recent years, making it one of the most sought-after deities in North India. A couple of decades ago, the shrine was especially popular with Punjabi community but today pilgrims comprise natives of Bihar, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, etc. as well. A great favourite of Delhi-Mumbai celebrities, the cave-shrine in due course of time has become one of the chief manifestations of Durga Mata. Descending the slopes of the hill past the Ardhkuwari, I plugged music into my ears just to escape the raucous as well as unmelodious bollywoodised songs sold in the name of religion. Lacking ideas and imagination to be put into a soothing melody, the filtering of Bollywood beats into the realms of devotion and mysticism is a culture-wide phenomenon. With the arrival of blazing Bollywood item numbers as well as the emergence of remixes, the bhajans too have undergone a makeover in the name of innovation.

It took me slightly more than four hours in reaching the gateway back from the Bhawan while the ascent had took just four. Almost immediately as I stepped on the other side of the gateway, I was surrounded by autowalas for Katra, who took full advantage of the situation and blackmailed tired visitors jacking up the fare by 10 times. In this age when both religious affiliations as well as criminal intentions are on the rise, our generation has just been enslaved by money-oriented desires and materialistic greed. I opted to continue walking to reach the hotel room. That night, I knew, I was going to get the best sleep.

Hustle bustle, on the route, well past midnight

Hustle bustle, on the route, well past midnight

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The Jawahar Tunnel

The following is a page entry from On Road through the trans-Himalayan Region. To read complete travel memoirs and trip report, please visit here.

Chapter 20 of 22

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Shikaras lined up on the shore of Dal Lake

Shikaras lined up on the shores of Dal Lake. More pics from the region at Flickr Photostream

Bidding adieu to the Dal Lake as well as the Hari Parbat in its backdrop, next morning we checked out from the hotel after morning yoga as well as breakfast and headed towards the Lal Chowk on the Ganderbal Road. A popular symbol of political activism from the time when partition was held, Lal Chowk, despite having been decidedly reduced to just a clock tower, nowadays, still continues to be one of the most talked about city squares in India. Not only activism, the Lal Chowk is also famous for the market surrounding it, which as the locals claim, stores anything to everything. I was particularly interested in a few particular books on the region as well as a detailed trekking map.

Gul Gulshan Gulfaam. Remember!

Gul Gulshan Gulfaam. Remember!. More from the region at Flickr Photostream

The bandh situation had improved from the previous day and the market did seem to return to normalcy but the old city as well as mosques area was still out-of-bound for visitors like us. We bought some handicraft items, as souvenirs, from the stores located in the main market of Lal Chowk. Typical handicraft items from the region would include papier mache articles, shawls (pashmina, semi-pashmina), carpets, rugs, embroidered cloths as well as wall-hangings, pheran, wicker-crafted articles and wood carved items, etc. However, the best place to source such objects are from the workshops located in the labyrinthine lanes of the old city. For wooden carved furnishings, the market of Budshah Chowk and Polo View consists of wider options.

Secured away from land, one is dependent on shikara rides to move between houseboat and the lake-shore.

Secured away from land, one is dependent on Shikara rides to move between houseboat and the lake-shore.

Brought to the region in the fourteenth century, the Persian artistry work – Papier Mache, as we call it today – got frequently modified through ages including aligning to the interest of French traders, in nineteenth century, who after finding its huge demand back home in Europe established trade pacts with the Kashmiri artisans. Even replacing the traditional name of the craft with “papier mache”, the French influence had its own downsides including sacrifice of the traditional designs as well as colour schemes. Today, the production of this craftwork is largely confined to Shia community within Srinagar, a majority of who are gradually shifting to other occupations. Quite opposite, the manufacturers of other craft items like carpets, gabbas, namdas as well as pashmina articles, embroidery, crewel, willow, wicker and wood-carved products have economically grown by leaps and bounds. Shopping these products at the Lal Chowk market, be at your best in bargaining as most of the products are overpriced here.

A Shikara

A Shikara titled Gul Gulshan Gulfaam

Despite spending a considerable time in the existing book shops in the market, I failed to get the desired books and the map. Past the Mughal Darbar restaurant (also a guest house now) on right, the road ahead (Residency Road) running parallel to the Jhelum River merges with the National Highway 1A (NH1A) connecting Uri with Jalandhar, covering a total distance of about 663 km. The lunch time at the restaurant starts after 1230 hrs but the thirty six course meal, Kashmiri Wazwan, seemed too heavy a meal for both of us. Refreshing our supplies with some fruits and packaged juices, we headed to the NH1A. Immediately as we left the Residency Road, we were greeted by a massive traffic jam near the Bypass intersection. From the poise of the capital city of gardens, lakes, shrines as well as protests, we were finally nearing the down veracity of grinding life of plains.

The stretch of the NH1A, for the next 80 km at an average elevation of 1600m, passes through an enormously vast flat vegetation-rich terrain, alongside river Jhelum in the Kashmir valley, till Qazigund, a few kilometres before the Jawahar Tunnel on the Pirpanjal Range. Right after the saffron town Pampore, the highway crosses a dense forestation of willows dotting both sides of the road called Green Tunnel. Past Awantipura (housing a few eighth-century Hindu temples that we failed to locate), the stretch famous for its bat manufacturing small units dotting both sides of the highway cruises towards the diversion of Pahalgam at Anantnag, the commercial and financial centre of the Kashmir valley.

Bat manufacturers

A Kashmiri Willow Bat manufacturing unit. More from the region at Flickr Photoset

Bat manufacturing units

The local bat industry provides bread and butter to thousands. More from the region at Flickr Photoset

Spread on the NH1A on both sides of Anantnag, the cricket-bat manufacturing belt, providing bread and butter to thousands, comprises villages of Bijbehra, Charsoo, Hallamulla, Sangam, Pujteng, Mirzapor and Sethar, etc. With slabs of willow wood lying stacked in the open to dry, by the highway, at first I mistook it to be some furniture market. A few metres ahead, fully refined and ready-to-use bats displayed as wall-hangings around the workshops brought the reality out in the open. We excitedly stopped at a roadside teashop to end our curiosity. Kashmiri willow-wood is regarded to be one of the best materials for designing a bat that suits all forms of the game.

After partition, a majority of the craftsmen, mostly Hindu, migrated from Sialkot in Pakistan and resettled themselves in Jalandhar, Meerut, etc. With increasing demand, already famous for its quality wood, the Kashmiri willow crafting industry received the much-needed push. Close to 300 such small manufacturing units are currently on the go in southern part of Kashmir valley. Sitting cross-legged on a carpet of willow shavings spread on floor of his workshop, the craftsman minutely carves the slabs cut mechanically from willow logs. After finishing, depending upon the quality of the design as well as material, the bat is procured by middlemen as well as companies engaged in marketing sports goods. Even if the government is trying hard to save the monopoly of the region in manufacturing bat, the units, pegged at USD 20 million, suffer heavy losses during frequent insurgency operations. However, at this time villages were alive and kicking as some NGO had placed a collective order with them to manufacture one lakh bats to be used in the forthcoming Gujarat assembly elections.

Vale of Kashmir; as viewed from the "Titanic View Point"

Vale of Kashmir; as viewed from the “Titanic View Point“. More from the region at Flickr Photoset

Vigilantly patrolled by paramilitary personals, the NH1A is regularly peppered with fuel-stations as well as teashops, small dhabas, wicker-workshops, bat manufacturing units, fruits shops, bakery shops, etc. Past the diversion for Shopian, a little before Anantnag, we slowed down to give the apple vendors, a once-over, who were preoccupied with packaging the produce. Sourced from the famous apple basket of Shopian, the apples were being sold to the middlemen at dirt-cheap prices. I at once asked for 50 kg of apples and got them packed in two boxes. Surprisingly, the apples were in perfect condition by the time I reached my hometown in Haryana. Contrary to our Zanskar venture, the in-cabin pleasantly smelled of fresh apples now (instead of the pungent fuel-smell).

The 2531 m long Jawahar Tube from inside

The 2531 m long Jawahar Tube from inside

The highway ahead turned right near the administrative offices of Anantnag, located at a comfortable 55 km distance from Srinagar. Literally meaning “abode of springs and lakes”, Anantnag is claimed to be an ancient place that came into existence as a market-town (said to be around 5000 BC) making it one of the oldest urban human settlements in the world. The town houses many ancient monuments as well as temples, most of which are now in ruins, looked after by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). As pointed out in Zanskar memoirs, a major hurdle to successfully self-navigate in Jammu & Kashmir is the absence of sign-boards marking the way to such sights. We heavily counted on my Garmin handheld GPS device. The cousin strictly opted, I think rightly so, not to ask for directions, other than leading to the main highway, from a bystander. Adhering to our Kashmir-specific travel-principals, we failed to access the lesser-visited off-route sites.

A rare road-info board ahead.

A rare road-info board ahead. More from the region at Flickr Photoset

The valley that has beheld immeasurable vicissitudes and experienced countless upheavals from time to time, all through ages, including the on-going militants-led tussle warranted a cautioned movement on our part. It is always advisable to check with local travel agencies or tourism offices with respect to the latest travel advisory to the region. Thanks to the vigilant security network set up by our paramilitary as well as defense forces, the travelling environment has improved figuratively as compared to that of the previous decade. On top of the lethargic JKTDC authority that has not contributed much in the overall development of tourism, even now a little organised-information is available on the region.

Ahead the highway passed through cultivated stretches marked by pretty shades of agriculture crop in the valley. The highway continues on the same average elevation till Qazigund, after which it ascends gradually over round hairpin bends on green hills. A few kilometres ahead of village lower Mundha (1880m) on a steep switchback, the last and final views of the Kashmir valley could be had. Marked by a BRO board – Titanic View Point – is situated 34 km ahead of Anantnag. We stopped by a small tea stall, which served beverages as well as snacks, where we were greeted by a small paramilitary outpost. With the help of a binocular, I futilely tried to figure out the origin of Jhelum River, the largest of the five rivers of Punjab, formed by merging of many smaller tributaries as well as springs in the southern part of Kashmir. Just six km ahead of the View Point on the highway lays the famous Jawahar Tunnel (2531m).

Evening Landscape captured from a point near Patnitop

Evening Landscape captured from a point near Patnitop. More from the region at Flickr Photoset

The 2.4 km-long-tunnel that serves as the only road-link between Jammu and Kashmir valley was constructed in 1956 under the avalanche as well as landslide prone Banihal Pass (2832m) on Pirpanjal Range. Providing round-the-year access to Kashmir valley, the Jawahar Tunnel (or Banihal Tunnel) is heavily guarded by military round-the-clock prohibiting any photography. The stretch of the NH1A up to Jammu is looked after by the BRO. Apart from a railway-tunnel, the authorities are in the process of tunneling passages across the Pirpanjal, the largest range of the lower Himalayas, to support the proposed four-lane highway that will reduce the distance between Jammu and Srinagar.

A Pine and a Deodar

A Pine and a Deodar Tree. More at Flickr Photoset

Exiting the tunnel, the tarmacked-highway gradually descended the slopes of Banihal Pass, graded into several zones according to the magnitude of avalanche as well as landslide proneness. This stretch of the highway is known to have remained blocked for days during peak winters. As the highway descended gradually, the outside temperature increased, reaching its peak at a town called Ramban (1163m), situated 50 km from the tunnel on the right bank of Chenab, where we withdrew some money from a State Bank of India ATM. Moving forward, the road again started to gradually ascend passing through several settlements including Batote. Just before Batote, dhabas (Mansa Ram dhaba run by Sharmas) located on Peerah Morh are famous for freshly-cooked servings of Rajma(sh)-Chawal along with ghee and anaardana chutney. A personal favourite finger-licking quick meal option which we consumed at this very place was relished till the last grain of rice. Ahead the NH1A steeply climbed, one last time, over hairpin bends to reach a popular hill-station of the Jammu region, Patnitop.

Patnitop is an ideal destination to take wooded walks

Patnitop is an ideal destination to take wooded walks

Situated on a picturesque Shivalik ridge, at an elevation of 2105 m above sea level, Patnitop is blanketed by thickly wooded tall deodar and pine trees. Commanding all-encompassing views of surrounding landscape, on both sides of the ridge, including that of the Chenab basin, the hill-station is thronged by tourists both in peak summers and winters. In winter, the snow-crazy tourists crowd the region to ski on the snow-covered meadows and observe snowfall. Originally named Patan Da Talab implying “Pond of the Princess”, Patnitop, said to be a popular sojourn-destination of royal families, got its name changed over the years.

Patnitop: ...the air is cool and still, and the hills are high and stretch away to heaven

Patnitop: …the air is cool and still, and the hills are high and stretch away to heaven. More at Flickr Photoset

An attractive picnic spot, Patnitop offers peaceful walkways, leading through lush green meadows and dense woods, interspersed by JKTDC holiday huts, a few resorts, refreshment stalls, shopping stalls housing Kashmiri stuff, etc. Indeed for its economical pricing as well as the location, we settled in for a JKTDC property to spend the night. Although superior, other stay-options were located slightly away from the greenery besides food was overpriced. The manager at the JKTDC property offered us an additional off-seasonal discount. That evening we took a long (6 km) walk encircling the green belt looked after by the state forest department. A majority of the hotels and guesthouses are located outside this green-belt marked by dense cover of trees and shrubbery. Being an off-season, the virtual absence of tourists in the hill-station ideated Thomas De Quincey’s quote, “Old grieves shall be forgotten today; for the air is cool and still, and the hills are high and stretch away to heaven.”

Typical of Touristy Destination

Typical of a Touristy Destination

To be fair, all our demands were reasonably attended by the hotel staff. The wooden interiors of the room were maintained and the furnishings seemed old but beddings as well as towels were kept clean. The building looked as if timeworn in which the bathroom, though clean, merited a renovation. Surprisingly, the manager failed to provide me with specific information related to other destinations in the state. Later in the evening the caretaker, after serving dinner, disclosed that this was among the few profitable properties of the JKTDC in the state.

Room with a view (the Map Book shown in this pic was a waste of money).

Room with a view (Map Book was a waste of money!)

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